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Ohlone protest burial site desecration

Published Dec 1, 2005 9:00 PM

A group of Indigenous people and their supporters marched for three weeks in November from Monterrey, Calif., to the San Francisco Bay area—270 miles—to protest the desecration of 425 ancient Shellmound burial sites along the march route.

Sacred Site/
Shellmound Peace
Walk in Emeryville, Calif.

The group Indian People Organizing for Change led this action, called the Sacred Site/Shellmound Peace Walk. The trek concluded Nov. 25 at the entrance to the biggest site: the Bay Street Mall in Emeryville, Calif., in the East Bay.

For years now, Indigenous people have struggled to prevent further desecration of the sacred ground where their ancestors were traditionally reverently buried under huge mounds of molluscan seashells. The burial mounds date back 5,000 years ago. The local Ohlone People, including the Puichon Tribe, supported by several other nations including Ute Dine from the Southwest, Me-Wuk from the Yosemite Valley, Wappo, Wintun, Potwin and Yokuts, have taken part in this struggle.

As recently as 225 years ago, the Muwekma Ohlone Nation flourished where the Temescal Creek flowed into the Bay, in what became Emeryville. The Muwekma Ohlone spoke the ancient Chochenyo language. European-origin settlers in the region ignorantly thought the burial mounds were garbage heaps. When informed that the mounds were actually cemeteries, the settlers arrogantly went right on leveling the ground and discarding the very visible Native remains.

Although today they have been largely destroyed, originally the Shellmounds were so big that they were noted on the original U.S. Coast Guard maps.

Over the years as burial mounds were disturbed by construction projects, the University of California at Berkeley seized hundreds of remains. The university now refuses to return to the Ohlone people the remains of their ancestors.

When the city of Emeryville announced plans to “redevelop” the large area that is now the Bay Street Mall, Native people and their supporters fought hard to get their Shellmounds respectfully preserved. They attended city planning meetings and hearings time and again.

Nevertheless, the Emeryville Redeve lopment Agency and the Madisson/ Marquette business enterprise collaborated to go right ahead clearing the land.

Many construction workers on the site complained of illness on the job. Besides containing the burial sites, the area was an environmental hazard—classified as a “Brown Field,” half of which could have qualified for federal “Superfund” cleanup.

But the workers were told that the toxic waste that had been dumped there from polluting paint, pesticide and metal manufacturing years earlier was no longer a danger. That was a lie.

Even the protesting Native people picketing the site became ill from the toxics released into the air by the excavation. And no one told the workers they were desecrating a Native cemetery. Had they known, some of their own cultural sensitivities would have prohibited them from working there.

The area’s character as a burial site is being hidden from buyers of costly housing built as part of the “redevelopment.” Workers in some of the stores in the mall continue to report illnesses related to the environment.

Early on, one supporter of the Indi ge nous struggle made his own placard which read, “No shopping on graves- Ohlone Cemetery.” He picketed the construction site both before and after work hours.

Madisson/Marquette and Emeryville maneuvered to get away with the “redevelopment” by citing the federal government’s refusal to recognize the Ohlone Nation.

The oldest burial mounds are still in the ground, with the huge mall built over them reaping huge profits for the owners.

On Nov. 25 the marchers conducted an informational picket, handing out leaflets to carloads of shoppers entering the mall. A hundred Native people and supporters hoisted beautiful banners identifying their nation and tribe. Some would-be shoppers, after reading the leaflet, drove right out the exit.

The IPOC leaflet stated that the Shellmounds are older than the Egyptian pyramids, and that the Ohlone People remain in the area. The flier explained that “ancestors remain buried under this mall” and asked people, “Please don’t shop at a place that does not value the sacred sites of Ohlone people,” and to “protest this form of American terrorism at the collaborative hands of government agencies and commercial developers.”

Corrina Gould, Ohlone, said that renaming the roadways at the mall—like “Shellmound Street” and “Ohlone Street” —is Emeryville’s “way of commemorating the Ohlone People who were once here” without respecting the “Ohlone People who are still here.”